You are here

On the Nuclear Train Leaving Prague

IAEA Helps Move Hazardous High-Enriched Uranium Safely Back Home

The radiation-proof casks containing the spent fuel are checked for the last time before their journey to Russia begins. (Photo: D. Calma/IAEA)

Rez, Czech Republic - It´s cold, freezing cold. On a rainy December night, dozens of men and women have gathered on a hillside near the river Vltava, best known for its romantic views over the Czech capital. But tonight, they have no time for taking romantic pictures. This operation is potentially dangerous and will last through the night.

Security officers and technicians have only a few hours to finalize arrangements for the shipment of a highly sensitive load: they will send 360 kg of highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel back to Russia, where it first came from decades ago. The haul, if it fell outside of security controls, could theoretically be used to make dirty bombs, or even, in the worst case scenario, nuclear bombs.

Security personnel are everywhere: each and every person involved has a crucial role to play in this joint action between the IAEA, the Czech Republic, Russia and the US, as well as Slovakia and the Ukraine.

Hazardous HEU Locked Inside High-Tech Casks

Special ID cards, radiation dosimeters and safety helmets are distributed to operation teams. After a short, last planning meeting, the first stop is the storage facility. This is where the spent fuel has been kept under IAEA safeguards in 16 radiation-proof casks for the past few months. These blue, two-meter high containers, made by the Czech high-tech company SKODA, are making their debut. In order to receive a transport licence, the cask went through a tough series of drop, puncture, fire, submersion and pressure tests.

With US funding, the IAEA purchased 10 of them, to be donated to the Czech Nuclear Research Institute Rez plc., which purchased a further six out of its own resources. Under an agreement with the IAEA, all 16 will remain in Czech hands to be used for similar shipments from around the globe during the next decade.

Ladislav Bartak, Director of the Department of Non-Proliferation in the Czech State Office for Nuclear Safety says: "It is also important that these containers are the first foreign nuclear fuel casks to be accepted by the Russian Federation."

The material being sent back to Russia consists of 80 kg of spent high-enriched uranium (HEU) fuel and 280 kg of spent low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel. It was given to then-Czechoslovakia by the then-USSR and used in the Rez research reactor to produce radioisotopes for medicine, industrial and research purposes. After becoming irradiated in the reactor, it is now classified as spent fuel and the Czech Republic has no use for it.

Spent HEU fuel, if reprocessed, can be recycled for civilian as well as military purposes. And it, as well as the LEU spent fuel, is highly radioactive, an additional source of concern for public health and safety. Thus, it poses both a proliferation and a security risk. Russia, as the country that originally supplied the HEU, will reprocess the spent fuel for further civilian use in the Mayak facility near the Ural Mountains and will thus prevent the possibility that falls into the wrong hands.

Back in the cold hall, radiation levels on the surface of each 12-tonne cask are measured. The hand-held screen shows no anomaly. Now the casks can be loaded into regular shipping containers, which will be used to take the load on a special train to Russia.

IAEA Safeguards: HEU Under Control

IAEA Safeguards Inspector Jeong Eui Sang checks the seals of each of the 16 casks applied earlier by his colleagues. Between April and August 2007, the spent fuel rods were loaded into the casks under water, or in hot cells, which protect operators from radiation exposure. Several IAEA inspectors spent almost a month verifying the process.

The Cobra and metal seals on the cover of the casks are intact. So the IAEA´s continuity of knowledge about the material is not in question, because without breaking the seals or wires, the casks can not be opened.

"This cobra seal is an in situ verifiable seal," says Inspector Jeong Eui Sang. "I can verify it on the site that there was no tampering with it between the sealing date and now. This means I can verify that all the material declared to the IAEA is here."

Inspector Jeong also downloads images from a surveillance camera overlooking the hall. Until today, all movements in the hall have been monitored by camera 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Neither the operator of the facility, nor any third party knows the frequency with which the IAEA camera records images. This makes it impossible for anyone to move, replace, or touch any material or machinery without the IAEA noticing it. Now that the IAEA can verify that the load in the SKODA containers was indeed the one overseen throughout the past few months it can be sent away.

The Loading Operation: Convoy in the Night

A truck convoy start to line up. The first driver reverses his container truck into the storage hall. A crane lifts the first SKODA cask and carefully places it inside the ISO container. Radiation levels are measured again - everything is normal. The weight of each truck carrying two SKODA casks will be 28 tonnes.

The first truck leaves the storage hall to park and wait for the next seven trucks. Dozens of police officers guard the trucks. Earlier, their search dogs checked the trucks against explosives.

The work continues through the night. After the final truck leaves the hall, Inspector Jeong climbs the scaffolding to remove the IAEA surveillance camera. "Since the fuel has left the storage facility and there is no other nuclear material left here, there is no need for us to continue surveillance in this hall," he explains.

After the final radiation control on the surface of the ISO containers, the convoy hits the road at noon. Due to tight security measures, very few people know its route and schedule.

The Long Train Ride Home

At a local station outside Prague a train from the pages of Cold War history awaits the nuclear cargo. In its passenger car Czechoslovak leader Alexander Dubcek travelled in 1968, at the height of the so-called "Prague Spring", to meet Soviet leaders Leonid Brezhnev and Alexei Kosygin on the USSR-Czechoslovak border. This time, the car will carry the security officers who accompany the train to Russia.

It´s dark, the rain has eased and the loading of all the eight shipping containers onto the train has just ended. Igor Bolshinsky says he slept only three hours in the last three days. He oversees the repatriation mission on behalf of the National Nuclear Security Administration of the US Department of Energy and has been involved in this project since its inception, almost four years ago.

"We don´t want high-enriched uranium to get into the hands of the wrong people," he says. "That is why we are removing this material from all over the world. It´s a part of the non-proliferation commitment by the United States, the Russian Federation and the IAEA."

At 20:52, almost 24 hours after the action started, the train slowly starts rolling eastwards. Momentary euphoria, a sigh of relief. Mr. Bartak is happy. Is the Czech Republic safer now that this spent fuel is gone? "Not only the Czech Republic," he says, "but probably the whole world."

The final relief came when the cargo arrived safe and sound on 8 December at Mayak, after passing through Slovakia, the Ukraine and the European part of Russia.

Last update: 27 July 2017